I watched Robbie Hummel grimace and sweat this summer. I watched him attack weight machines with a vengeance and endure the drudgery of stepping up and down on a block of wood no bigger than a stair riser without complaint.
When we talked, he told me about the first moment he woke up following surgery, when a nurse bent his leg back and it made a gross noise that still made him shiver.
He told me how frustrated he was to watch his teammates work on agility drills that he still couldn’t do.
And he also told me something that, now that I’ve learned he’s re-torn the ACL I was watching him rehab in July, just about makes my stomach knot.
“I’m a little nervous because I hurt it doing something so simple,’’ he said to me as we ate noodles a few blocks away from the Purdue campus. “It’s not like I was doing anything crazy, so I’m a little apprehensive. I want to fall down and get back up again.’’
Robbie Hummel fell in practice on Saturday morning.
Only he couldn’t get back up, and now one of arguably the most talented and genuinely nice players in college basketball will have to go through the same awful rehab he only just completed.
It is, no doubt, an awful blow to Purdue and muddies up the season’s expectations (I had picked the Boilers first, in part, because I thought they had an edge about them after losing Hummel last year), but really all I can think about right now is Hummel.
His surgeon elected to take the patella tendon from Hummel’s good knee instead of a graft from his injured right leg. Though that left Hummel technically with two knees to rehab, the rationale is that taking the graft from the injured leg only weakens it further. This sort of surgery speeds along the rehab process.
And Hummel welcomed that.
Rehab isn’t fun. It’s bloody awful, both painful and painfully boring, the physical pain outdone only by the mental drain.
But Matt Painter and athletic trainer Jeff Stein both told me Hummel was a remarkable patient the first time around. He wasn’t afraid or depressed; he wanted to push to do more.
He worked feverishly every day, spending more hours with Stein than anyone else in West Lafayette. When his leg wasn’t strong enough, he lifted weights for his upper body. When his teammates took shots during workouts, he practiced cutting.
Hummel was as tireless in rehab as he is on the court.
But can he do it twice? Can anyone?
I know someone who had to.
Five years ago, I was the Villanova beat writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. During the second round of the NCAA tournament against Florida, Curtis Sumpter crumbled under the basket with a torn ACL.
He, like Hummel, worked his rear end off in the summer to come back and rejoin his team -- a team expected to be very, very good, not unlike Purdue. Sumpter was so excited that he nearly skipped to practice on that first day in mid-October.
And then on Oct. 19, Sumpter re-tore his ACL during practice. He had surgery in November and missed the entire season.
I watched and talked to him a lot that year. He was a great support for his team -- a great leader and cheerleader -- but emotionally, he was crushed. In fact, he didn’t accept a medical redshirt until February, holding out hope daily that he might just be able to return for what would have been his senior season.
Instead, the Wildcats and the guys he came to college with -- Jason Fraser, Allan Ray and Randy Foye -- went to the Elite Eight without him.
“You think, ‘Oh, I could have gotten that rebound or blocked that shot,’’ Sumpter told me at the time. “It’s so much worse this time. Last time I missed one game. It was a big game [the Sweet 16 matchup with North Carolina], but it was one game. This time we’ve played what, 17 games? It’s killing me.’’
Sumpter came back strong the next season, averaging 30 minutes, 17.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. But the player who, I believed, was the best on the Villanova team before the first injury, went undrafted.
Sumpter has made a decent career for himself overseas, but you can only wonder what might have been for him.
And now Hummel.
The NBA is a funny business. It will draft a player on potential, upside and wingspan and ignore his statistics because of a perceived medical malady.
Countless teams passed on DeJuan Blair because he didn’t have an ACL, convinced he would never be able to play despite a college career to the contrary (and an NBA rookie season that made an awful lot of people look silly).
So how will the NBA look at Hummel and his twice-injured knee when the time comes?
Impossible to know.
I do, however, know that the player I watched in July is not a person I would count out.
He will get back up eventually.